News Archives

  • UNM
  • >Home
  • >News
  • >2022
  • >September
  • >‘A serendipitous life’: The right people in the right places were key to Lydia Tapia’s success

‘A serendipitous life’: The right people in the right places were key to Lydia Tapia’s success

September 9, 2022

photo: Lydia Tapia

Growing up, Lydia Tapia was curious about computers, but didn’t have much interest in what would eventually become her area of expertise: computer science.

An Albuquerque native, the now-professor and incoming chair of the Department of Computer Science was actually more interested in biology. One of her first exposures to computer science was when she was a student at Sandia High School and became involved in the New Mexico High School Supercomputing Challenge.

“My friends and I signed up because we were strong math students and we got a trip to Glorieta [New Mexico],” she said. “I didn’t even know how to code!”

When she asked her father for a computer, she had her heart set on what she thought was then the state-of-the-art: a Commodore 64.

“He got me a Commodore 128, and I was so disappointed,” she said. “I didn’t realize the 128 was actually a better computer than what I’d asked for!”

When she was a senior in high school, she was an intern at Sandia National Laboratories through the Career Enrichment Program. Although she found some of the projects interesting, she wasn’t convinced that a career in computer science was right for her.

Even though she wasn’t set on a career in computer science, she began to make some lifelong connections while at Sandia that would guide her along her path in years to come: Nadine Miner (a UNM Engineering Distinguished Alumni Award recipient), Sharon Stansfield and Jim Pinkerton.

After high school, she began as a student at Tulane University, but not in computer science.

“I wanted to do biomedical engineering.”

However, her talents in computing soon captured the attention of leadership at Tulane.

“The chair of computer science at Tulane reviewed my application and wondered why I wasn’t in computer science.”

She was persuaded to take on a second major in computer science, but by her junior year, it became apparent that due to the intensity of the curricula in these two disciplines, she would have to make a choice. She then made the switch to computer science.

After graduation, Tapia returned to Albuquerque to work at Sandia. She wasn’t sure what her future held. “I didn’t think about what came afterward.”

Then her mentors encouraged her to pursue graduate school, so she soon enrolled at Texas A&M, with an area of study in computer science with a focus on molecular modeling.

There, she was immersed in her classes and research, pulling the typical late-nighters of a graduate student. She began experiencing some health symptoms, so she visited the student health clinic. She was told it was probably a sinus infection.

But later, she began to experience seizures and her husband, William, rushed her to the ER. Turns out, she suffered two strokes (later attributed to a blood-clotting disorder), temporarily losing her vision, the ability to walk and a lot of her motor skills. At age 24, she was hospitalized for three months at a top stroke hospital in Houston. She had to relearn tasks like walking and grasping a pencil, but amazingly, her verbal and computational abilities were unscathed. Today, she still suffers some slight motor deficits, but she fared considerably better than what doctors at the time thought: “One doctor told me I should quit graduate school and go into telemarketing since I could speak so well.”

The experience changed her. She had to delay her Ph.D. progress for about a year, then return to her studies gradually. She said the experience gave her a greater understanding of people with challenges, which has helped her better understand the struggles that students face. “It made me a lot more empathic, and it also taught me to recognize my limits.”

Tapia earned her Ph.D. in 2009, then took a Computing Innovation postdoctoral fellow position at the University of Texas at Austin. She had to cut that fellowship short when she was offered an assistant professor position at UNM in 2011.

In the last decade, she quickly rose through the ranks, being promoted to full professor the same year she was selected as department chair, the second female to lead the department at UNM. She has a thriving research enterprise, focusing on artificial intelligence, machine learning, computational biology and robotic motion planning. She has multiple projects with funding from agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the Army Research Laboratory.

In 2016, she received the National Science Foundation CAREER Award for “Modeling and Analyzing High-Dimensional Molecular Assembly: Quantifying the Impact of Allergen Structure.” She received the Denise Denton Emerging Leader ABIE Award from the Anita Borg Grace Hopper Celebration in 2015. And in 2017, she selected for the Computing Research Association-Women (CRA-W) Borg Early Career Award, which honors Anita Borg, a pioneer for women in the field of computing. She is particularly proud of this award, which recognizes women in computing who have made significant research contributions to the field and in the outreach to women.

Now, as department chair, on top of research and teaching, she is balancing budgets, staff and managing overflowing classrooms, thanks to the popularity of computer science. Still, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“This is the best job in the world,” she said.

She agreed to a two-year term as department chair and has wasted no time in getting to work.

“I’m not a person who can do just one thing at a time. It’s hard to not want to do everything,” she said. “I want to make the lives of our students better. They have struggled, especially since the pandemic. So I would like to make it easier for them to focus on classes and get internships and jobs after they leave UNM.”

In particular, she would like to improve the academic advising experience, as well as the tutoring and mentoring, all with the goal of improving retention. She is excited about a new Section Leader Program, championed and funded by computer science alumna Polle Zellweger and her husband Jock Mackinlay, which develops leadership skills by tasking senior-level students with teaching material to newer students. The program, started at Stanford, has been proven to benefit both leader and pupil.

Tapia will continue her research with her grad students, although she says they may need to exercise more independence since she will be stretched in new directions for a couple of years.

She first met her husband, who is in the data science field in the private sector, in middle school and they started dating in high school. They have a daughter, Iliana, 13, who can often be found sitting in her mother’s office or reading in the Department of Computer Science suite.

Tapia said being a mother and holding a busy, demanding position takes a toll, but she said her husband is supportive, and she thinks her daughter is too.

“I think she understands the importance of what I do,” she said. “I think it’s important for her to see her mother have an impact in a leadership role.”

Tapia credits a lot of her success to mentors she found along the way, which she didn’t even seek out, as well as a lot of opportunities that spun off from her hard work. Now, she said, all those forces are coming together to give her the momentum she needs to succeed as a leader.

“I’ve had a serendipitous life to bring me to where I am today.”